Sandy Fire Case Cleared for Trial

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They’ll have their day in court. This week, Queens County Supreme Court Justice Bernice Siegal decided that those involved in the case of Heeran v. Long Island Power Authority & National Grid must face a jury trial. This announcement from Kevin Galleshaw of Sullivan & Galleshaw law firm, who is handling the case on behalf of the owners of hundreds of homes and businesses from Breezy Point to Rockaway, that burned down during Hurricane Sandy, comes as good news for those seeking liability and damages from the utility companies.

On the night of Hurricane Sandy, flooding wasn’t the only threat to homes and businesses. Three areas of the neighborhood, including several businesses near Beach 114th and Rockaway Beach Boulevard, several homes and the Harbor Light in Belle Harbor, and a large portion of Breezy Point, saw fires that reduced the properties to ashes. Law firms representing the home and business owners Sullivan & Galleshaw, LLP, and Godosky & Gentile, PC, allege that The Long Island Power Authority and National Grid were thoroughly negligent in their lack of preparation for the storm by abandoning their electrical equipment while keeping it fully energized as the peninsula was underwater and battered for hours by the fierce storm, resulting in electrical fires around the neighborhood. The fierce fires burned unattended through the night for hours until the tide receded and emergency services could enter the peninsula to combat the flames.  By daybreak, over 150 homes and businesses were burned completely to the ground, resulting in property damages exceeding $100 million—an estimate offered by the defendant’s themselves in a prior court filing.

Now, with Justice Siegal’s decision, the case can proceed to a jury trial. This announcement comes in response to the second motion filed by the defendants, LIPA and National Grid, who were attempting to avoid a jury trial by having the case dismissed. The prior motion was appealed by the defendants all the way up to the Court of Appeals, which also rejected the defendants' arguments for dismissal on other grounds than those filed in the summary judgment motion decided this week. The defendants had also requested three separate trials, one for each fire on the peninsula, but the court ruled that the case would proceed as one trial.

The lawsuit alleges that while LIPA was entrusted with the duty and responsibility to distribute electricity, they passed that responsibility off to National Grid by paying them an annual base fee of $224 million with several added incentive bonuses for each hour they operated electrical transmissions. Shortly after the storm, Governor Andrew Cuomo transferred the task of transmitting and distributing electricity on Long Island and the Rockaway Peninsula to PSE&G, a publicly traded energy company headquartered in New Jersey.

In rejecting the defendants' attempt to dismiss the lawsuit, the court stated that, "The defendants who provided electricity to areas known to be vulnerable to storm surges, could have, and should have, promulgated written protocols for storm deenergization. Judge Siegal further ruled that, "the plaintiffs eviscerated the defense reliance on a 'relic' law left over from 1886 and had no application in the current lawsuit."

Plaintiffs’ attorney Sullivan stated, “If LIPA and National Grid acted responsibly in preparing for the storm, my clients would not have suffered the heartache of losing their homes, businesses, all of their life possessions and the communities would not have looked like war-zones after the storm passed through. The defendants showed a total disregard for our clients' health and safety. Industry protocol and common sense called for shutting down the electric system. Sadly, LIPA and National Grid chose to keep the dangerous electric flowing into the very small narrow communities that are completely surrounded by water without any monitoring of the lethal electricity as the surging tides and violent wind barreled into the community.”

In ruling against the defendants request to sever the trial into three separate trials according to each fire location, the court held “…there are common questions of law and facts as evidenced by Defendants’ own motions… further, the interests of judicial economy and consistency of verdicts will be served by having a single trial.”

Sullivan is pleased with the result. “Unquestionably, the court reached the right decisions on both fronts,” he said. “The motion for three separate trials was nothing more than a failed effort by the defendants to challenge our resolve and try to harm our clients financially by running up the costs and time by three-fold. We will not waiver at all. Sadly, while our clients still struggle, the corporate defendants with unlimited financial resources, chose to spend six years pushing meritless defenses."

The case is expected to proceed to a jury trial later this year.

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